Rachel Kelly
Writer, Mental Health Campaigner, Public Speaker

Mental Illness in Children: Can what you’re feeding your child help?


Alice Porter is an avid writer who is passionate about raising awareness for mental health problems in children.  Here Alice explains the warning signs of mental illness in children, and the impact diet and nutrition can have on their mental health.


Last month people raised awareness for Children’s Mental Illness Awareness Week, in an attempt to bring the mental illness challenges children can face to the forefront of conversation. This got me thinking about the warning signs we need to look out for in our children.

People often make the mistake of confusing mental illnesses with simple behavioural problems or ‘naughtiness’ – which means that so many children are left undiagnosed.

1 in 10 children and young people between the ages of 5 and 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder – which is the equivalent of three children in every average school classroom.

So, in order to treat these illnesses, it’s important to recognise the warning signs. This infographic (produced by Lorimer Fostering) helps you to see some of the main warning signs that your child may be suffering from a mental health issue.

It is easy to mistake these symptoms of mental illness for misbehaviour. It is difficult to compare their mood swings, behaviour and actions to other children and to know what is ‘normal’.

The best thing that you can do for the child in this situation is to firstly ask them about their feelings and behaviour, make them feel safe and protected and never ignore the warning signs – consulting with a professional can either highlight an issue, or rule it out.

But can your child’s diet and eating routine affect their mental health? While diet alone cannot help to treat or cure a mental illness, it can help to alleviate some symptoms and make them more manageable. What you eat affects your mood massively, studies into the affect food has in altering mood and behaviour in children have shown that a balanced diet could make a noticeable difference for even some children with behavioural problems makes it worth a try.

The first area to focus on is the overall nutritional content based on the principles of a balanced diet: ensuring small frequent healthy meals, lots of water, fresh fruits and vegetables, etc. It is also a good idea to strip out too many high sugar, refined, processed foods and additives.

Whether your child has been diagnosed with a behavioural disorder or is simply going through a difficult stage, tweaking their diet may be an extremely effective starting point in moderating behaviour.

For example, the classic symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) include insomnia, lack of concentration, mood swings and frequent destructive outbursts. While eating differently is not going to cure your child of these symptoms, by reducing the amount of sugar and refined carbs that your child eats can possibly make the impact less severe.

(Remember:  Although you may recognise some of these traits, try not to self-diagnose without having your child assessed by a specialist.)

Developing your child’s relationship with food from an early age can really help your child’s development and to reduce symptoms of mental health. The below image explains ways you can address the foods that your child is eating and the impact it may be having on your child.

Children with a stable and healthy mental status have the ability to live up to their full potential and truly live a life that is filled with positive experiences and the willingness to do what is best for themselves and the people around them.

There are a myriad of factors that can impact a child’s mental health status, both positively and negatively. Providing children with an environment that is full of love, care, trust, and understanding will greatly impact a child so that they can build on these stepping stones to have a productive lifestyle. What you feed your child won’t make them depressed for example, and it won’t cure their depression either. What it will do is help their symptoms and to speed up their mental recovery.